As a college writing teacher, I have the pleasure of helping my students discover their writing voice and their passions in life. Every once and a while I will read an essay that I need to post on my blog because it lines up with my goals, which is to help people find their own healthy path in life through optimistic realism. Felicia’s essay on volunteering fits well with that mission and my own passion for reforming education.
Imagine a world in which we could feel confident enough to leave the major decisions and responsibilities that need to be addressed in our country in the hands of our young people. We would do this and feel secure that the oversights and misdirection our country previously was subjected to by its predecessors would be rectified by an involved, enthusiastic, emerging generation. It would be invaluable to have young idealists addressing the concerns and issues facing their communities before they turn into larger problems that then become national issues. What a world this would be if, instead of leaving the complicated issues our country faces on the shoulders of an unwilling and unprepared younger generation, we arm them with the value of community and the tools for successful civic engagement.
We all know that as the US. Population grows, newer and newer generations emerge, each one seemingly worse off than the last. Prior generations, unless otherwise affiliated with public institutions such as churches, private schools, or youth based organizations (where volunteering is required), were not shown how to offer impactful change in their community. Without these examples of how to care about more than one’s own immediate personal needs, each new generation of young people grows increasingly detached and uninvolved as time goes by. Alison Muller made an observation about what she witnessed during her volunteering initiative offered by the students that reside at the troubled youth facility she worked at:
One of our most successful volunteer activities was with a local senior nursing home. We had an idea of what we had hoped could be gained by volunteering with the elderly, but we could not have anticipated all of the benefits the youth received, especially for those deemed the most troubling. We found over time that the youth who were most problematic within the residential program were often the best volunteers or helpers. The same qualities that caused problems in the residence made them successful with our senior citizens. (Mueller)
Even with the most troubled of our youth, volunteering can have great impact on their social and individual development irrespective of the social/emotional challenges they may face.
I’m confident that most people can list a minimum of three or four issues they feel either their community and or state deals with, whether environmental, institutional, or public, that involve not only themselves but their fellow citizens directly. The need for change is obvious, and the need for volunteering is nationally recognized. “Volunteerism during the Transition to Adulthood: A Life Course Perspective” points out the need for more visibility of our young people in volunteering:
Concerns about the maintenance of American democracy and civic society is heightened by a presumed disengagement of the contemporary younger generation from the political process and civic life, as well as its greater individualism and materialism. The empirical evidence for the perceived disengagement of young people is mixed, however. While trust among young people has declined and materialism has grown, rates of volunteering and community participation have remained stable or even increased over the past two decades. Despite this evidence, concern about young people’s civic involvement and the future of American civic society continues. To be concerned is warranted, since learning a sense of civic-mindedness and being engaged in the community early in life is found to be of utmost importance in developing responsible and civically active adults.
Why is our younger generation so uninvolved? Are materialism and consumerism going to be all we demonstrate and pass on to our future generation? Can we encourage and promote community based problem solving? I would say, “Yes, we can,” and “Yes, we should,” specifically while our students are attending school and while their minds are pliable and open to guidance.
There are those who have some definite opinions surrounding this idea of volunteering and students specifically in conjunction with the school environment. Robert Grim weighs in on the topic:
School is a key area for youth socialization. Not only is it a place where youth begin to develop an identity apart from their family, it is also a context in which youth begin to develop a sense of a larger community to which they belong. In addition, previous research has shown that involvement in volunteering through schools, whether through community service or service-learning, can lead to improvements in self-esteem and academic achievement. In response to the overall decline in civic engagement among Americans, the past decade has seen a growing debate on the role that educational institutions should play in promoting civic education in schools. (Grimm)
He makes a great point. Volunteering adds a substantial enrichment component to the education of school aged children. Isn’t emphasizing a sense of community just as essential to our children’s education as other skills taught? We should equip our youth with the ability to facilitate group projects that are beneficial to their community, state, or country. How can we truly say that we are preparing our children to become the best people they can be if we are not somehow tracking the way their minds and ideas are developing and whether those ideas will hinder or fall in line with civic engagement fundamentally?
A good solution for dissolving the unappealing image volunteering has will be to familiarize/normalize volunteering and civic education. It should be written into curriculum starting from third grade and up. Most adults hold the impression that volunteering is time consuming or that they get no direct immediate benefit. Some feel that they simply don’t know where to start. All of these misconceptions could be dispelled through early engagement and information on participation.
There are those who feel that forcing students to perform mandatory-volunteering is an oxymoron. This is not completely inaccurate. This is precisely why more attention to and the creation of service learning and civic education curriculum should be implemented as soon as possible into public and private schools alike. It’s important to remember that not all the benefits of volunteering go only to the students. Large scale volunteering itself sets the tone of the community in which it’s frequently offered. Implementation of this idea not only would make the process familiar to each new emerging generation, but also for the current members of the community. The relationship between volunteer and recipient is a unique dynamic:
The new pattern of volunteering offers challenging and meaningful activities . . . the engagement is for short term and the turnover in the organizations is rather high. These developments are linked to a general process of individualization, which however cannot be totally identified with egoism. . . . nowadays the service-oriented attitude is emerging, which creates a climate of trust and results in a more satisfactory and productive relationship between volunteer and recipient, in contrast with the earlier “merely” helping attitude, where reciprocity was not necessarily prevalent. (Feynes)
It’s not an easy task, trying to locate recent studies or statistical information on the frequency of youth volunteering. This is because volunteering is not a topic that generates enough conversation. There are organizations that employ the use of young adults to teach service learning to school age children in their community. They also facilitate and organize volunteering projects in those same communities. One such organization is called City Year, another is called AmeriCorps. Both organizations encourage youth volunteering and try to educate about civic engagement and leadership. Both also offer a presence within the local school systems as well. The relationship with schools and the organizations is a very idealistic initiative. However, on the part of the public schools, the amount to which each organization is allowed to introduce their objectives and volunteering initiatives is extremely limited. This seems counterproductive, even with organizations being readily accessible.
Think about how many times you’ve volunteered in your life. How did you feel after? Now place yourself in that same scenario with one major difference. You have a solid understanding of what it means to make the choice to step into leadership roles, and civil service has now become your instinctive. This could be achieved with our emerging generation, but only if we teach unconventionally:
These new ways of understanding and brain-friendly approaches to learning are creating waves of change in all levels and domains of education from the instruction of formal schooling in both private and state based programs, to education policy, to an increase in academic research institutes, to special needs education, to private educational and therapeutic enterprises. However, such new advances are still young, with research yet in its early stages of development and acceptance. Many educational systems across the world still adhere to more traditional approaches and more enlightened institutions are grappling with the transition from the old ways of thinking to the new. (Karabulut)
In conclusion, no matter what your political views or opinions are, we all want our country to progress and strive for improvement; we don’t want to continue to witness the corrosion of our “democratic” nation. This starts with us. But for everyone to carry the same sentiments it must be instilled early on.